ON MIGRATION: In struggling upstate New York cities, refugees vital to rebirth

November 24, 2017

By Alex Leary, November 17, 2017, for Tampa Bay Times

A mosque in downtown Utica was once a Methodist church that had been abandoned and was going to cost the city about $1 million to raze. The Bosnian Islamic Association of Utica took it over and revitalized the property, which now serves a diverse Muslim population. (ALEX LEARY | Times)


Pat Marino pulled into the shop on a cold, wet Thursday and stood close as a young mechanic with gelled-up hair and earrings lifted the truck and ducked underneath.

“You need a little bit more oil,” the mechanic said.

“Five quarts wasn’t enough? Oh, okay.”

An ordinary scene on an unremarkable afternoon. But as the men got talking, they revealed the story of this city’s rise, fall and scrappy climb back — one the descendant of immigrants, the other an immigrant himself.

“My grandparents came over from Italy in the 1920s,” said Marino, 63. “We had a bar and restaurant a block up from here on Kossuth.”

The restaurant is boarded up, the casualty of a decades-long economic collapse that saw Utica’s population of 100,000 cut nearly in half as mills, factories and powerhouse employers like GE vanished. A nearby Air Force base closed in 1995.

“My friends I grew up with,” Marino said, “they’re gone.”

Though still struggling, Utica today has signs of hope, built largely on refugees who have stabilized the population, rehabbed homes and started businesses. An abandoned Methodist church downtown that faced a wrecking ball was transformed into a lively mosque. Another mosque sits across the street from the old Marino restaurant.

The garage is owned by a Bosnian and the mechanic, 24-year-old Irfet “Fetty” Covic, arrived in Utica with his refugee parents at age 2. “At first there were a lot of insults, they called me ‘onion’ because Bosnians eat a lot of them,” said Covic, whose grandfather was killed in the Balkan war. “Now I don’t even classify myself as Bosnian as much. I feel American.”

President Donald Trump took a hard line on immigration during the 2016 campaign and has issued controversial travel bans. He is slashing the number of refugee admissions to a record low, while raising fears of terrorism that have been echoed by politicians across the country, including Florida.

But a different story is playing out in Utica and other large cities in upstate New York.

Tens of thousands of refugees — Vietnamese, Burmese, Bhutanese, Bosnians, Somali Bantu, Iraqis, Syrians, Ukranians — have been resettled in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Utica, one-time industrial hubs animated by Italian, Irish, German and Polish immigrants.

New York took in 40,000 refugees in the past decade alone, almost all of them upstate, and has the third-largest refugee population in the nation.

Some tension exists, but the communities have largely embraced the influx. Crowds have shown up for rallies opposing Trump’s policies. Lawsuits have been joined.

In Utica, where Mayor Robert Palmieri calls refugees the “next evolution,” some light manufacturing has returned and the downtown shows signs of life. Behind the counter of a busy cafe on a recent morning stood a rare breed: A Utica native who moved to New York City but has returned to start the business.

“Many people in Utica remember their grandparents not speaking English or speaking with an accent. They recognize what’s happening isn’t so different than their own story a few generations ago,” said Shelly Callahan, executive director of Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees.

“The place just lends itself to growth and rebirth. We’re intrepid here.”

• • •

Today, nearly a quarter of the 62,000 Utica residents are immigrants, providing a stabilizing force. Between 2000 and 2015, the U.S.-born population in Utica dropped by 3,100 but the foreign-born population grew by 3,500.

“It’s very cheap, not like Boston,” said Jafar Mohamed, 30, who as a boy fled the civil war in Somalia and grew up in a refugee camp in Kenya. He saved up money as a cab driver in Boston and this year bought a small market in Utica called Golden Halal. He is working on a GED.

The transition has not been easy. The school district struggles to keep up with an influx of students, many of whom arrive with little or no English and varying degrees of education. Last year the district settled a lawsuit that accused it of diverting refugees from the city’s lone public high school to alternative programs.

Refugees are eligible for public assistance and stores across Utica prominently advertise that they accept “EBT,” debit-like cards that can be used for food, and longtime residents grumble about their neediness.

The presidential election brought animosities to the surface, with a handful of reports of people yelling at women in hijabs or online commenters inveighing about a city overtaken by Muslims. Even among those who welcome the newcomers, security concerns persist.

“Look at what just happened in New York City,” said Marino, the man at the garage, referring to the immigrant who on Halloween used a truck to mow down eight pedestrians. “Today, I don’t know, everything is so different from when I was growing up.”

The night before at one of Utica’s Italian restaurants, Fox News played coverage of the attack, carried out by a Uzbekistan man who arrived on a diversity visa. “Imagine if Italians started coming here killing everyone,” one man said. The owner complained about newer refugees “from the jungle” being on welfare and how they can’t drive well and wear flip-flops during winter. But he also credited Bosnians for “saving” the city.

Bosnians arrived in Utica after the Balkan conflict in the early 1990s, and have most successfully integrated into the community, buying and rehabbing hundreds of homes. Their stucco work has brightened up parts of the city. The old Methodist church downtown was going to cost the city $1 million to raze but the Bosnian Islamic community took it over and converted it into a mosque, where on a recent Friday, dozens of men — white, African, Asian — showed up, removing their shoes before stepping onto the red-and-gold patterned carpet.

“They are definitely making Utica a better place. They make me feel like Americans are lazy compared to them,” said Tricia Curran, 47, who grew up in an Italian family. Twelve years ago she and her husband bought a dilapidated home for $16,000 and made repairs, boosting the value to $33,000. Then Bosnians began buying up property and Curran’s assessment jumped to $78,000.

She is not fearful of the new arrivals, which include some Syrians. “The killing at the concert in Las Vegas,” Curran said, “that was an American. You can’t call all Americans terrorists because of one person.”

At the same time, her sister blames refugees for why she can’t find a job as a bank teller.

• • •

The question of jobs is steeped in the immigration debate, one side accusing refugees of taking paychecks from Americans, the other saying Americans don’t want tough, low-paying jobs.

More than a decade ago when Callahan started working at the refugee center, jobs were harder to come by. “Now we’re finding lots of jobs and employers are often asking for more workforce than we have,” she said, noting that the American-born labor pool has not only shrunk but aged, and opioid addiction and the heroin epidemic have taken a toll.

A job board at the center carried postings for blackjack dealers at nearby Turning Stone casino, lift operators at a ski hill and school bus drivers. DHL, the shipping company, recently called seeking up to 60 people.

Dozens of refugees travel to the Chobani yogurt factory in New Berlin, about 40 miles south. The company was started by Turkish immigrant Hamdi Ulukaya, who has faced threats and calls for boycotts over his hiring practices.

“That’s been the American way the whole time — immigrants fill the jobs,” said Beth Broadway, CEO of Interfaith Works of Central New York, a nonprofit that settles refugees in Syracuse. A Kraft Heinz plant that makes Philadelphia Cream Cheese called this summer looking for 25 workers to fill a new shift and offered to provide bus transportation for the 90-mile trip north to Lowville, she said. One idea is to provide ESL classes during the commute.

In Manlius, just outside Syracuse, nearly 350 refugees work at Stickley, an upscale furniture maker. “All we do is open a door. We don’t do this as a charity,” said CEO Aminy Audi. “I think it’s the right thing to do, to be welcoming, but it’s up to them to earn their positions — and they do.” One of the top HR managers is a Bosnian refugee.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, which advocates for reducing immigration, argued that refugees allow cities such as Utica and Syracuse to avoid addressing problems such as high taxes and regulations that could attract businesses and keep up the population.

“The yogurt factory is getting these workers who for the most part aren’t ex-cons or drug users,” he said. “But the taxpayer is having to help these people feed their own children.”

The toll on public assistance and other support systems is significant. However, a study released this summer by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that refugees who came as adults pay $21,000 more in taxes than they receive in benefits over their first 20 years in the United States.

• • •

Syracuse has been one of the most eager cities, taking in about 1,200 refugees a year, among the highest per capita rate in the country. Mayor Stephanie Miner, a Democrat, stepped into a heated national debate in 2015 by calling for more Syrian refugees. “Immigrants and refugees are the victims of crime, not the perpetrators,” she said in an interview.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott objected to taking in Syrians, citing concerns over vetting after the 2015 Paris terrorist attack. Florida, which does not face the same economic or population challenges as upstate New York, took in about 2,500 refugees that year. New York welcomed more than 4,000.

“Maybe we need to take a step back as a country and say, ‘Hey, the president is onto something here. There are folks in the world who want to do the U.S. harm and we need a stronger vetting program,’ ” said Tom Dadey, the GOP chairman in Onondaga County, which includes Syracuse.

Advocates and national security experts say the vetting process is already rigorous, lasting up to two years and featuring extensive interviews, background checks and biometric data collection.

The growing Muslim population in Syracuse has created friction. Some people were angry when a Roman Catholic church on the North Side, closed due to declining attendance, was converted into a mosque in 2015. Other mosques have sprung up.

“If they don’t speak English, guess what, they don’t need to be here because we don’t have the money to support them,” said Danny Vansice, 50, an out-of-work truck driver who was walking by a small mosque on North Salina Street. “I don’t trust them. They’re all terrorists to me.”

Across the street, Rosanne Anthony, 62, worked in the backroom of the A-1 Trophy shop started by her parents 40 years ago. “Some people feel their way of life is being threatened, that we’re too generous,” she said, adding that she views refugees as hard working and family focused.

Trump has set the refugee cap next year at 45,000, the lowest since 1980 and far below the 75,000 sought by refugee advocates. Trump’s travel bans have already slowed populations and placement centers in Utica and Syracuse say their numbers could be down by as much as half. They have laid off staff.

Maha Aldujaili, who arrived in Syracuse from Iraq in 2014, is losing hope that she’ll be reunited with her husband, who she said was kidnapped and held for ransom. The people who took him threatened to cut off his head and kill her children, she said through an interpreter. Her husband was freed and she has applied for him to come to the United States. But the process is not moving.

“I’m getting depressed. I’m unable to continue my life without him,” said Aldujaili, 48. Meanwhile, her three children, one attending community college, are trying to adapt. “I am starting from zero and again feel persecuted and have no rights because the president is making decisions against us.”

The situation for Mudey Omar, 35, is more hopeful after a long struggle. It took him six years to gain admittance into the U.S. from a refugee camp in Kenya, where he sought harbor from the extremist group Al-Shabaab in his native Somalia, which tried to recruit him as a solider.

“The vetting they do is already extreme. Only people who come through that vetting know,” Omar said, seated at a table with refugees from Iraq and Bhutan, both of whom said they were tortured by enemies in their countries.

Omar started as a janitor at Rite-Aid and now works as a case worker for other refugees while driving for Uber and Lyft on the weekends. Married to a fellow refugee with three U.S.-born children, he wants to pool money with a friend and buy a home.

Last Monday, he passed the test to become an American citizen.

“I have voice now. I can vote,” he said. “I can travel back to Somalia and see my brothers and sisters. But this is my home now. It’s good for my children — they will have a better future.”

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